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What is Poverty?

Poverty is a complex problem. There are many aspects to it, and it has many causes. The most widely used poverty definition focuses on economic poverty. This definition measures poverty by the amount of money a person earns and establishes poverty rates for communities and countries based on income inequality and financially drawn poverty lines.

In this way, poverty becomes relative. The poverty threshold for a family of four in the United States is an income of around $25,000 a year. For a family of four living in absolute poverty in a low-income country, that amount of money is more than 36 times what they are forced to survive on each year.

Many families living in the world’s poorest countries must meet their basic needs with an income of less than $1.90 a day. Nearly 10 percent of the world's population live in this type of extreme poverty.

Understanding poverty strictly as economic inequality and measuring it with relative poverty thresholds makes it difficult to view poverty as more than unemployment, poor living standards, and a low income. But poverty encompasses more than this.

A proper definition of poverty must address the many different types of poverty and acknowledge that poverty is hunger and lack of shelter, illiteracy and not having access to school, being sick and unable to see a doctor, fearing for the future, living one day at a time and feeling completely powerless and trapped by things beyond one's control.

Nearly 10%
OF THE WORLD'S POPULATION
live in extreme poverty

43%
OF THE GLOBAL POOR
live in Sub-Saharan Africa

80%
OF THE WORLDWIDE POOR
live in rural areas

Source: World Bank

What Causes Poverty?

While the causes of poverty may seem as multi-faceted as a diamond, they can be grouped into two primary categories—culture and believing the lie of worthlessness.

The Cultural Cause of Poverty

Cultures have internal and external elements that contribute to the existence of poverty. Some of these conditions are tangible and external, like:

A boy squats down next to a tree
  • Lack of shelter
  • Limited access to clean water resources
  • Food insecurity
  • Physical disabilities
  • Lack of access to health care
  • Unemployment
  • Absence of social services
  • Gender discrimination
  • Poor infrastructure
  • Government corruption
  • Environmental circumstances such as natural disasters, droughts, limited resources or depletion of natural resources

Other elements are intangible and internal—knowledge, aspiration, diligence, confidence, leadership styles, participatory governance, social capital, values, and peace, to name a few.

Culture is the framework that creates an atmosphere that accommodates poverty or prevents it from taking root.
  • When society provides a school or educational opportunities, that is a cultural asset. It addresses the community's lack of education by providing a means to teach literacy and knowledge. This enables individual learning and betterment and provides greater chances of future employment. Internal factors are then impacted as children and families become optimistic about the future.

  • When children don't have a safe place to play, they are more vulnerable to being abused or getting caught up in gangs and drugs. When a culture provides something as simple as a safe playground , children have a place to escape from those who could harm them. The children then feel valued and protected and begin to experience the importance of healthy socialization with other children.

  • Consider a family without access to clean drinking water. They walk miles every day to collect water and the water they collect is unsafe to drink. Such water can transmit illnesses, including cholera, typhoid, diarrhea, dysentery and even polio. When a culture provides access to clean filtered water, it provides safety from water-borne illness. When a child doesn’t need to walk miles for water, he or she also has time for educational and family opportunities. Safe water impacts more than just physical health.

  • And consider a child who grows up in a garbage dump. She is surrounded by waste and chaos. This conveys the message, “you are trash.” The external environment and unhealthy living conditions are part of this child's poverty, but the message the environment communicates is just as devastating and can be a reason why the child remains in poverty.

Individually, these internal and external elements are often used as justifications to explain poverty and why a person, family or community is poor. Developing strategies to address these elements or conditions is helpful and provides a way to address the various root causes of poverty.

The Lie of Worthlessness Causes Poverty

Poor people often believe they are failures. And this message of oppression and hopelessness affects their ability to hope for a better future. Their grandfathers lived in poverty. Their fathers lived in poverty. The cycle continues with them and will continue to the next generation as well.

When people believe this lie of poverty, that they are worthless because of their circumstances, they become victims. They lose hope, and without hope, it’s difficult to dream of a better way and almost impossible to be an agent for positive change.

When people in poverty have a low view of themselves and no hope for the future, their relationships are affected. They have a low regard for other people and don't believe that their relationships will get better.

Children are particularly vulnerable to this lie. When poverty surrounds them, they believe they have no value or purpose.

The solution is introducing a voice that transforms the worthless and hopeless mindset into a message of truth: “I matter. I have worth. Things can get better.”

This change in mindset is easiest when it is done early in a person’s emotional development. Therefore, it is best done with a child. That way, the lie can't take shape and influence the child’s identity. The voice of truth can be strong and influential in the life of a little child. Freedom from poverty is possible.

"Children are likely to live up to what you believe of them." — Lady Bird Johnson, Former First Lady of the United States

Untangling the Causes of Poverty

Regardless of how poverty is measured our holistic child development model addresses the external factors of poverty culture by helping communities and families gain access to clean water sources, create positive and healthy living environments, learn income-generation skills, build better infrastructure and take advantage of educational opportunities.

But our approach to fighting poverty doesn’t stop with these external factors. It places great emphasis on the internal, and eternal, message of truth, that every person matters.

Through our Child Sponsorship Program we provide holistic care to help poor children fully develop and become responsible and fulfilled adults. Holistic care means whole-life care. It's long-term, and it's comprehensive. It means we provide opportunities that encourage healthy spiritual, physical, social and economic development.

We build self-esteem and self-respect, to fight the lie of worthlessness, and we help meet the physical and external needs of impoverished families with initiatives to help babies and mothers in poverty, develop future leaders and meet critical needs such as medical emergencies and recovery after a natural disaster.

According to a poll of top development economists who specialize in analyzing development programs, child sponsorship is the most effective long-term development intervention for helping the poor because it addresses the external and internal causes of poverty.

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